Grocery shopping wasn’t always so difficult for Anita Walker. “When I was in college, I would just shop and I really wouldn’t pay attention,” says the 24-year-old category development analyst in Hormel Foods Cincinnati sales office. “Now my mom and my cousins say, ‘We can’t go to the store with you because you just analyze everything!’ Well, that’s just my job! I need to know everything.”
Like many young people, Walker’s shopping patterns were set by what she ate growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas. “I just followed what my parents bought,” says Walker. “So if my mom bought Hormel®chili, I was going to buy Hormel®chili.”
A Changing U.S. Workforce
As more and more millennials move along in their careers and start families, they are beginning to develop new preferences and to make their own choices both individually and as a generation. The trick, Walker knows, will be to hang onto those young adults who have nostalgic affiliations to Hormel Foods products and get all the others to give them a try. Walker confesses a weakness for Hormel®No Bean Chili but is aware that other young people might be reaching for some competitor’s product. “We need to find a way to get millennial shoppers to switch over to our brand.”
Much has been made of the impact of the so-called millennial generation (ages 18-34), both as consumers and as employees. And while Walker’s job is to analyze the tastes and trends of her generation, her success at Hormel Foods since joining the company right out of college in 2014 also bears analysis. What she wants, and what she’s concerned about, should be of interest to anyone who wants to hire—and keep—young people.
According to a Pew Research Poll, in 2015 millennials became the largest generation in the U.S. workforce, surpassing Gen X and baby boomers. In the media and popular culture, millennials have been labeled the “non-nuclear family generation,” the “nothing-is-sacred generation,” “wannabees,” “cyberkids” and the “searching-for-identity generation.” However, stereotypes of self-involved young people forever posting pictures of themselves on social media have given way to a more nuanced portrait of a generation no more adrift than the rest of us.
“A growing body of evidence suggests that employees of all ages are much more alike than different in their attitudes at work,” according to a 2016 Harvard Business Review report. There is compelling evidence that millennials, in particular, value bosses and leaders who demonstrate good listening skills.
Listening skills played a part in Walker’s first encounter with Hormel Foods. When she was at the University of Arkansas, majoring in retail merchandising with an emphasis on accounting, she had an internship in the packaged meats department at Walmart. “I remember when Stack Pack Premium Flavored Bacons were being introduced and they were rolling them out to Walmart,” says Walker. “The Hormel Foods sales representative was really interested in my opinion about what millennials think about these products and flavors,” Walker says. “She was one of the only people who was interested in what I thought. She had a really good relationship with my buyer and my buyer would always speak highly of her.”
It wasn’t long after that Walker started planning her career. “I wanted to work with something I’m familiar with,” she says. “I went into my pantry to see who makes what.” She remembers being shocked to find how many of the products in her own kitchen came from Hormel Foods. “Then I started going on websites and applying.”
She liked the “day in the life” videos the company posted, which helped her get a sense of the company culture. “I also looked up some articles and saw it was a promote-from-within company,” she says. “I really liked that.”
Employers on Notice
Indeed, a demonstrated commitment to promoting talented employees is critical to hanging onto millennial workers for more than a few years. Data indicates that employers are paying attention—and taking steps to retain them. While a 2016 Deloitte poll of international workers concluded that “millennials have one foot out the door,” with nearly two out of three workers in that demographic planning to leave their current job “soon” or “within two years,” the 2017 Deloitte Millennial Survey shows that percentage has dropped to less than half over the last 12 months.
When Walker first started at Hormel Foods she sat down with managers from her division to get a sense of them and their history. “There are so many people who have been here 10, 15, 20, 30 years,” she says. “It was good to see so many employees with such a long tenure.”
“So many people have been here 10, 15, 20, 30 years. It’s good to see so many employees with such a long tenure.”Anita Walker
She agrees that many people her age aren’t thinking long term when it comes to work. “I do know multiple people on their second or third job already,” she says. “It depends on your situation. I personally feel that if a company embraces millennials and makes them feel that they can have a successful career within that company, they would stay.”
A New Base
Hormel Foods is Walker’s first employer and if she (and the company) are lucky, it may be her last. “This is literally my first time living outside the state of Arkansas,” she says. “I just packed up the U-Haul and drove to Ohio. My mom was really excited about it. My mom is disabled and she kind of wants me to break away. I always worry about her, but she’s always saying, ‘No, you need to go and have your own life.’”
Co-workers at Hormel Foods were eager to give her tips about where to live and what to do when she relocated. “I’m not a beer drinker,” she says, “and in Arkansas we didn’t really have breweries, but here in Cincinnati it’s all about the beer and different breweries!” On weekends she will hit some of the city’s hot spots with her sorority sisters (Alpha Kappa Alpha has a graduate chapter in Cincinnati) and go bowling or to the movies, and, well, tour a few breweries. (Samples are involved.)
As an African-American woman, Walker is mindful of racial diversity in the workplace. “That is something that we’re trying to improve,” she says. “We have multiple ERGs [employee resource groups], including one for African-Americans. There’s one for women called Women Our Way and one for LGBTQ people as well. Using our ERGs is one way to help change the view of Hormel Foods. Until 20 or 30 years ago, it’s been a more of a white-male-dominated company; but if you look at our marketing team now, there are so many women. Things are slowly changing. We are a little bit behind but they are trying, making so many efforts and trying to catch up with the times.”
Walker says she is too engaged by her job to even think of leaving. Working with the data service 84.51°, she analyzes what shoppers are buying and why they return to certain products. “In a nutshell, I take shopper loyalty card data and turn it into insights to help our sales and marketing teams.”
She works at home one day a week, which she sees as a trade-off, gaining focused productivity time, but losing exercise. “It’s better for my heart to go to the office,” she says. “But for my mind, it’s sometimes better at home.”
Walker has been trying to cook a wider variety of dishes at home lately, even making stuffed chili quinoa peppers from a recipe she found online. But she never forgets where she came from. “I do a lot of Southern comfort food cooking: fried chicken, cornbread, sweet potatoes, mac and cheese,” she says. “That’s the good stuff.”
Her short-term goal is to become her division’s training manager. “I had a very difficult upbringing and I did it all on my own,” she says. “I’m a first-generation college student, so I know what it’s like to have difficult times and see your way through them. If I can help anybody in any way get through a situation, then I want to give back and help.”